Editorial: The student strike should be used to oppose the Green Paper
In September, the NUS moved a motion for a national strike ballot for the first time in over 40 years. Students’ unions need to approve but if they do every student in the country will be given a vote on whether to walk out of classes. If we want parliament to hear us on the Green Paper, we should use this historic opportunity to oppose it.
When it was put forward, the strike motion had no clear aim and President Megan Dunn described it as “for a yet undecided purpose,” challenging its very basis; that a ‘strike’ implies withdrawn labour. Her arguments were echoed at SOAS this month, where a student strike in solidarity with a suspended union official won his reinstatement, but only after hundreds of students petitioned that their expensive education was being withheld by activists.
It clearly demonstrated the need to outline why and how you are striking, especially if the cause you’re supporting is an obscure or controversial one.
The current messiness of procedures at the NUS, overridden by the Left, make that sort of clarity very difficult. Weak campaign slogans like #CutTheCosts have shown how the executive and its ‘civil service’ can make poor political decisions without consulting other officers or acknowledging the political shifts seen at the national conference. It bodes badly for the prospect of a strike where the Chief Returning Officer, a paid NUS staffer, decides on the final question.
Equally, as Megan Dunn herself has noted, the new Green Paper contains some positive developments. It devotes a whole chapter to widening participation, suggests further guidance to the Director of Fair Access and, with regards to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), there is certainly a need for many universities to consider carefully the quality of their teaching.
However, fair access is more or less the only positive to the Green Paper, and even that chapter has an overwhelming focus on white working class students over the protected classes outlined in the Equality Act.
Universities are to be further marketised, allowing for more private providers to ‘enter’ the sector and, ominously, failing institutions to ‘exit’ it. The idea of the university as a public service will be further eroded, and tuition fees will be allowed to rise with inflation.
The introduction of an “Office for Students” (OfS) combining the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is a shrewd move, in theory putting access at the heart of government funding provision. But we would not be the first to point out that an “Office for Students” implies a similar remit to the NUS. It may be that their opposition to Prevent and proximity to the Labour Party has finally drawn the ire of those in government who would prefer a less political student movement.
Curbs to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOI) ties into broader government attacks on FOI in response to media scrutiny. For London Student, taking away our ability to make FOI requests will seriously impact on how we hold universities to account.
FOI has been fundamental in making sure these otherwise impenetrable institutions actually support students in the way they claim to. Meanwhile, the approach to students’ unions; to “increase transparency around how funds are spent,” shows the hypocrisy of the government position.
The focus in the TEF on employability and student satisfaction are likely to warp results to favour prestigious universities already flush with cash, and if some are ‘allowed to fail’ it will be to the detriment of many students at ex-Polytechnics and newer outer-London universities. It will also put stressed academics and fractionals under increased pressure, making good student support an even more distant possibility.
In Quebec, student strikes demonstrated the power of direct action against a faltering government when half of the student population walked out over rising tuition fees, and stopped them. The Quebecer example was the result of years of political organisation and activism, but as a model it should not be ignored.
Here the Conservative Party has a small majority, and the Labour Party finally has a leadership supportive of free education. What’s more, the Liberal Democrats demonstrated how a co-ordinated student voice against any party will hurt you badly in the polls. Any strong reaction from students in Tory marginals will be take extremely seriously, many now in weak university city seats with open rebellion brewing over Tax Credits.
Technically, the Green Paper is only a consultation, but the Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) feedback form uses reams of higher education jargon, and would take most students over an hour to complete.
An NUS strike, making a strong and clear statement alongside a united Labour Party, could be enough to reverse the government’s intentions. Something valid to fight for and a clear chance of winning means even the right-wingers of the NUS cannot ignore this opportunity.